Cover Story

Goddaughter

Storm over Sofia Coppola -- Her performance in ''The Godfather III'' is overshadowing the most eagerly awaited sequel in years

''I had connections.'' That's how Sofia Coppola openly and cheekily accounts for landing the pivotal role of Mary, daughter of Mafia Don Michael Corleone, in her father's epic The Godfather Part III. But her connections came with strings attached — and those strings have yanked the 19-year-old fledgling actress into one of the nastiest Hollywood controversies in years.

When Francis Ford Coppola chose at the eleventh hour to replace an ailing Winona Ryder with his daughter, he may have seen the move as a director's prerogative. But the debate over his choice of Sofia — who has a Valley Girl accent and virtually no acting experience — has grown to overwhelm the picture itself. The affair may have further damaged Coppola's flagging career — Godfather III was to have been his big comeback — and doomed Sofia's before it has even begun.

For the Coppola family, the storm has not come as a complete surprise. ''Well-meaning people tell me I am permitting a form of child abuse,'' Sofia's mother, Eleanor, wrote in a diary she kept for Vogue during the filming., ''that she is not ready, not trained for what is being asked of her, and that in the end she will be fodder for critics' bad reviews that could scar her for years. They also tell me that Francis can't afford to take a chance that would weaken his work at this point in his career.'' Her fears were harshly and promptly realized the moment Paramount finally screened Godfather III for the press on Dec. 12. Many members of the New York audience snickered at Sofia's portrayal of the Don's innocent daughter — and laughed out loud at her pivotal scene at the movie's climax.

And that was only the beginning. Though many praised the film, reviewer after reviewer has singled out Sofia's performance as a disaster. Not all critics joined in the Sofia bashing. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael praised her ''lovely and unusual presence,'' and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote that she brought a ''ripe adolescent sexiness'' to the film. But many others declared open season on the actress by ridiculing her diction and even belittling her looks. ''(Her) gosling gracelessness comes close to wrecking the movie, '' said Time magazine's Richard Corliss.

The division and derision didn't end with the reviews. Moviegoers have been as split as the critics, and the Sofia factor may have been contributed to the film's box office performance, which has rapidly declined after a strong start. Moreover, both during production and since the movie's Christmas Day release, the trade and popular press have been filled with stories describing Coppola's attempts to minimize Sofia's impact on his film. According to these reports, she was called back to do an extraordinary amount of dubbing, and Coppola spent the final days before the opening desperately shaving seconds from her scenes. The quality of her performance is of course debatable, but a close look at the facts shows that the stories of Coppola tinkering with the film are largely inaccurate.

When Mills College freshman Sofia Coppola flew to Rome in December 1989 to spend Christmas with her family, she had no idea she was approaching a major junction in her young life. Her father had been juggling Godfather III's Rome shooting schedule for weeks, waiting for Winona Ryder to finish her work on Mermaids and join the production. Coproducer Fred Ros recalls that Ryder finally showed up after Christmas, ill and exhausted. ''I get this call in the middle of the night and get a doctor for Winona,'' he says. He and the doctor went to the hotel where Ryder was staying with her boyfriend, Johnny Depp; after examining her briefly, the doctor advised Roos to send her home.

''I called Francis right away and we reviewed the other choices, Annabella Sciorra and Laura San Giacomo,'' says Roos. (First choice Julia Roberts had been committed to Flatliners, while Madonna, who screen-tested, had been deemed to old to play against love interest Andy Garcia.) ''And then Francis said, 'I'm going to try Sofia.'''

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